The romanticism of wandering, at least half of it, is nothing else but a kind of eagerness for adventure. No goal that I reached was a goal, every path a detour, every rest gave birth to a longing.
1916. Bill (Richard Gere), an impetuous young man with an itch to get ahead, loses his job shoveling coal in a Chicago steel factory after a brawl with the foreman. He decides to flee with Abby (Brooke Adams) his girlfriend, and Linda (Linda Manz), his twelve-year-old sister. They jump a freight train along with hundreds of other itinerant work headed for Texas. There Bill passes Abby off as his sister. The threesome go to work in the fields of a large farm harvesting wheat.
Days of Heaven is the second film by Terrence Malick, a former Rhodes Scholar and philosophy instructor. Like Badlands (1973), it is an adventure story about wanderers and a meditation on the soulscape of America. Within the parameters of a rather ordinary story about love and ambition, Malick takes on such universal themes as the order of nature, money, power, and the age of machines. The movie is also an attempt to suggest the quality of a rather broad arc of American life from the insides of an urban factory to the rural wheat fields of Texas.
Bill sees a chance to break out of poverty when the owner of the farm (Sam Shepard) takes a fancy to Abby. Having heard that the young man is going to die shortly from some unspecified disease, Bill encourages Abby to marry him. The surprise is that she really begins to love the shy farmer who is so alone in his Victorian house and so ill at ease with all his wealth.
Meanwhile in the fields, the workers come and go with the change of the seasons. Cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler put before our eyes some of the most beautifully suggestive imagery to cross the screen in years: fields of wheat undulating in the wind, a diverse community of farm hands bathing in a river, laborers bent down hard at work under the glaring sun, a festive hoedown celebration at harvest time with a black man dancing his heart out on a plank of wood. The cameramen are at the height of their craft covering the invasion of a plague of locusts. Fires started to kill the pests rage out of control until all is consumed in an apocalyptic conflagration.
Although the three wanderers are convinced that they have been given a taste of heaven when they move into the big house, they soon realize that it is not what they expected. A fight between the two men who love Abby results. Bill is soon on the run again with bloody hands.
Following a narrative technique he developed in Badlands, Malick has young Linda provide a voice-over commentary throughout the film. Her short phrases and homespun metaphors provide a counterpoint to what we see unfolding before us on the screen. The movie is further enhanced by an outstanding score by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. And for a special treat, these sounds and others are exquisitely amplified by a Dolby encoded soundtrack.
In Malick's vision of reality, the world can be seen as an exceptionally beautiful place. And as evidenced by the look of this film, he wants us to see it with fresh eyes. But the world is also an unfriendly place with contrary forces propelling both humans and nature in wayward directions. The rootless ones among us sense in heir bones that there is no resting place no heaven on earth. Or, as young Linda notes, "Nobody's perfect. You just get half devil and half angel in you."
After Bill is shot down by the law for the murder of the farmer, Abby and Linda move to a new town. The young girl who is now seasoned beyond her years is sent to a boarding school. But when she meets an old acquaintance another wandering waif like herself she gives in to the compulsion to strike out for new territory. And so the story comes full circle beginning and ending with one of the most durable themes in American literature and film.